Friday, July 25, 2008
I have long since learned that I can’t save people, or so I tell myself. So I go to the Bridge to help serve dinner on Friday nights to listen to the people there who are homeless and catch up on their news, to express my love for them and, most of all, to strive to understand them, the situations around them, and the solutions to their dilemmas. Inherent in the process is a perplexing conundrum: the more I learn, the less I seem to know.
I also go to be part of a community made up of homeless friends and strangers, and of like-minded friends of the homeless who are doing what I do… a community that is more changeable than most, more transient than most, but one that now has a central and generally safe place, the Bridge, to manifest itself.
Tonight, good news continued to pour in through the door of the dining hall there, the Second Chance Cafe, run by the Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church: this couple and that individual were moving into apartments; a significant number of new, blue-badged Residents came through, and, when asked how it was going, the news was all positive; C., a friend who is pregnant and has been on the street for years, has moved in with her sister and is reuniting with her family at Christmas; G. and his partner are moving in with his brother in Missouri; Tony is starting work and school; a young woman who had begun her G.E.D. a long time ago at Martin Luther King Center, then let it lag, completed it this week. (It is not a stretch to guess that having an address at the Bridge, a place to shower and stow her belongings, to eat regular meals, to sleep in safety — that being able to devote her energy to studying rather than to raw survival — had reenergized an educational process that had previously stalled out.) One sad observation: an increasing number of people that I see there look as if they just walked straight out of the suburbs.
There were at least four birthdays tonight: one girl turned nineteen, another, twenty-one. A man named Pops played piano beautifully during dinner, while another man sang. At one point, a diner walked up to the glass partition of the cafeteria line and, spreading his arms out to the sides in a gesture of magnanimity, said to the row of volunteers facing him who were filling plates with food, “When we see your faces there… it just truly, truly blesses us!” The love flowed from this man, the love that I see in most people’s eyes but which is hard for some of them to express. There was visible emotion in the faces of the volunteers after his declaration.
As people entered the dining hall, ate dinner and exited by the hundreds, there came through the line a friend of mine, a woman I haven’t seen since a rainy night in May, 2007. I am fond of this woman — let’s call her Desiree — have asked about her often since that time, and know she’s had some good times and some really bad ones in the interim. Tonight when I saw her she was much thinner, and she was a slim woman to begin with.
The last time I saw her happened to coincide with an evening when then-mayoral candidate (now mayor) Tom Leppert and his son, Ryan, visited the Day Resource Center and helped feed dinner to hundreds of people in the pouring rain. Desiree had entered the Day Resource Center parking lot that evening bruised and battered. When she came through the food line, I took her around behind the table where Mr. Leppert was dishing up and handing out plates of hot casserole, and I said to him, “This is Desiree. She’s been beaten up twice today.” “Desiree,” he said, “Stand right here beside me and talk to me.” (That was the moment he got my vote.) And she did, conversing with him for a long time.
Desiree’s the sort of person who is so intelligent, well-spoken and personable that you feel she should be running a company somewhere. She’s someone you want to choose to be the representative of something — a person who knows how to sum things up and speak about them clearly. And she’s someone from whom you can get the straight scoop. I was so glad to see her tonight, hugged her tight, and asked if she could catch me up on herself after the meal.
After dinner, when I had left the dining room and was sitting talking with some friends and other volunteers at a table on the Bridge campus, she found me there. She had changed clothes and put on makeup — looked beautiful — and was going out to meet a friend.
She questioned me about knee surgery I’d had, wanting to know how it was healing. “And what about you?” I asked. She said to me point blank, “I am exactly the same as when you saw me before, no different.” This meant to me that she felt she’d made no progress, was battling her old demons, was still up and down and struggling. “I lived with my family for a while. Then it didn’t work out. Now I’m… you know, back out here… just the same.” She shrugged. We continued talking. “Have you thought about the possibility of becoming a resident here?” I asked “I’m hoping to get in as a resident soon. I’m on the list and am going to as many of the [educational] meetings they want me to attend as I can. Might as well. I’ve got nothing but time.” “Please don’t give up on yourself, Desiree,” I told her, “You have what it takes. I hope you believe that.” I certainly believe it. She is one of the people I’ve always known would make it because of her capabilities.
But after she left, after I stayed and talked to people for a while, then began the drive home, the thought came to me — accompanied by a fear that gripped my stomach — what if she didn’t make it? It’s a crazy thing. Sometimes the people you think wouldn’t have the slimmest chance of getting their lives together — just do it. And sometimes those whose success you believe you could take to the bank — struggle much harder. Before tonight, I had never thought of her as one of the latter, or thought that her success and recovery were not a given. With some people you can let it go. With others, it’s a bigger challenge, who knows why? She’s one of those.
I am hoping and praying that Desiree gets into the Bridge Residents’ program. And I am hoping that she will soon be one of the miracles walking through the door of the dining hall there at the Bridge, the Second Chance Cafe, telling us her good news.